The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization

The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization

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by Peter M. Senge

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An MIT Professor's pathbreaking book on building "learning organizations" -- corporations that overcome inherent obstacles to learning and develop dynamic ways to pinpoint the threats that face them and to recognize new opportunities. Not only is the learning organization a new source of competitive advantage, it also offers a marvelously empowering approach to


An MIT Professor's pathbreaking book on building "learning organizations" -- corporations that overcome inherent obstacles to learning and develop dynamic ways to pinpoint the threats that face them and to recognize new opportunities. Not only is the learning organization a new source of competitive advantage, it also offers a marvelously empowering approach to work, one which promises that, as Archimedes put it, "with a lever long enough... single-handed I can move the world."

"Forget your old, tired ideas about leadership. The most successful corporation of the 1990s will be something called a learning organization." -- Fortune Magazine.

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"Forget your old, tired ideas about leadership. The  most successful corporation of the 1990s will be  something called a learning organization." —  Fortune Magazine.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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6.26(w) x 9.34(h) x 1.19(d)

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Chapter 4: The Laws of the Fifth Discipline

1. Today's problems come from yesterday's "solutions."

Once there was a rug merchant who saw that his most beautiful carpet had a large bump in its center. He stepped on the bump to flatten it out--and succeeded. But the bump reappeared in a new spot not far away. He jumped on the bump again, and it disappeared--for a moment, until it emerged once more in a new place. Again and again he jumped, scuffing and mangling the rug in his frustration; until finally he lifted one corner of the carpet and an angry snake slithered out.

Often we are puzzled by the causes of our problems; when we merely need to look at our own solutions to other problems in the past. A well-established firm may find that this quarter's sales are off sharply. Why? Because the highly successful rebate program last quarter led many customers to buy then rather than now. Or a new manager attacks chronically high inventory costs and "solves" the problem--except that the sales force is now spending 20 percent more time responding to angry complaints from customers who are still waiting for late shipments, and the rest of its time trying to convince prospective customers that they can have "any color they want so long as it's black."

Police enforcement officials will recognize their own version of this law: arresting narcotics dealers on Thirtieth Street, they find that they have simply transferred the crime center to Fortieth Street. Or, even more insidiously, they learn that a new citywide outbreak of drug-related crime is the result of federal officials intercepting a large shipment of narcotics--which reduced the drugsupply, drove up the price, and caused more crime by addicts desperate to maintain their habit.

Solutions that merely shift problems from one part of a system to another often go undetected because, unlike the rug merchant, those who "solved" the first problem are different from those who inherit the new problem.

2. The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.

In George Orwell's Animal Farm, the horse Boxer always had the same answer to any difficulty: "I will work harder," he said. At first, his well-intentioned diligence inspired everyone, but gradually, his hard work began to backfire in subtle ways. The harder he worked, the more work there was to do. What he didn't know was that the pigs who managed the farm were actually manipulating them all for their own profit. Boxer's diligence actually helped to keep the other animals from seeing what the pigs were doing. Systems thinking has a name for this phenomenon: "Compensating feedback": when well intentioned interventions call forth responses from the system that offset the benefits of the intervention. We all know what it feels like to be facing compensating feedback-the harder you push, the harder the system pushes back; the more effort you expend trying to improve matters, the more effort seems to be required.

Examples of compensating feedback are legion. Many of the best intentioned government interventions fall prey to compensating feedback. In the 1960s there were massive programs to build low income housing and improve job skills in decrepit inner cities in the United States. Many of these cities were even worse off in the 1970s despite the largesse of government aid. Why? One reason was that low-income people migrated from other cities and from rural areas to those cities with the best aid programs. Eventually, the new housing units became overcrowded and the job training programs were swamped with applicants. All the while, the city's tax base continued to erode, leaving more people trapped in economically depressed areas.

Similar compensating feedback processes have operated to thwart food and agricultural assistance to developing countries. More food available has been "compensated for" by reduced deaths due to malnutrition, higher net population growth, and eventually more malnutrition.

Similarly, efforts to correct the U.S. trade imbalance by letting the value of the dollar fall in the mid-1980s were compensated for by foreign competitors who let prices of their goods fall in parallel (for countries whose currency was "pegged to the dollar," their prices adjusted automatically). Efforts by foreign powers to suppress indigenous guerrilla fighters often lead to further legitimacy for the guerrillas' cause, thereby strengthening their resolve and support, and leading to still further resistance.

Many companies experience compensating feedback when one of their products suddenly starts to lose its attractiveness in the market. They push for more aggressive marketing; that's what always worked in the past, isn't it? They spend more on advertising, and drop the price; these methods may bring customers back temporarily, but they also draw money away from the company, so it cuts comers to compensate. The quality of its service (say, its delivery speed or care in inspection) starts to decline. In the long run, the more fervently the company markets, the more customers it loses.

Nor is compensating feedback limited to "large systems"--there are plenty of personal examples. Take the person who quits smoking only to find himself gaining weight and suffering such a loss in self image that he takes up smoking again to relieve the stress. Or the protective mother who wants so much for her young son to get along with his schoolmates that she repeatedly steps in to resolve problems and ends up with a child who never learns to settle differences by himself. Or the enthusiastic newcomer so eager to be liked that she never responds to subtle criticisms of her work and ends up embittered and labeled "a difficult person to work with."

Pushing harder, whether through an increasingly aggressive intervention or through increasingly stressful withholding of natural instincts, is exhausting. Yet, as individuals and organizations, we not only get drawn into compensating feedback, we often glorify the suffering that ensues. When our initial efforts fail to produce lasting improvements, we "push harder"--faithful, as was Boxer, to the creed that hard work will overcome all obstacles, all the while blinding ourselves to how we are contributing to the obstacles ourselves.

3. Behavior grows better before it grows worse.

Low-leverage interventions would be much less alluring if it were not for the fact that many actually work, in the short term. New houses get built. The unemployed are trained. Starving children are spared. Lagging orders turn upward. We stop smoking, relieve our child's stress, and avoid a confrontation with a new coworker. Compensating feedback usually involves a "delay," a time lag between the short-term benefit and the long-term disbenefit. The New Yorker once published a cartoon in which a man sitting in an armchair pushes over a giant domino encroaching upon him from the left. "At last, I can relax," he's obviously telling himself in the cartoon. Of course, he doesn't see that the domino is toppling another domino, which in turn is about to topple another, and another, and that the chain of dominoes behind him will eventually circle around his chair and strike him from the right.

The better before worse response to many management interventions is what makes political decision making so counterproductive. By "political decision making," I mean situations where factors other than the intrinsic merits of alternative courses of action weigh in making decisions--factors such as building one's own power base, or "looking good," or "pleasing the boss." In complex human systems there are always many ways to make things look better in the short run. Only eventually does the compensating feedback come back to haunt you.

The key word is "eventually." The delay in, for example, the circle of dominoes, explains why systemic problems are so hard to recognize. A typical solution feels wonderful, when it first cures the symptoms. Now there's improvement; or maybe even the problem has gone away. It may be two, three, or four years before the problem returns, or some new, worse problem arrives. By that time, given how rapidly most people move from job to job, someone new is sitting in the chair...

Meet the Author

Peter M. Senge is Director of the Center for Organizational Learning at MIT's Sloan School of Management, and a founding partner of Innovation Associates in Framingham, Massachusetts, and Toronto, Canada. He has introduced thousands of managers at Ford, Digital, Procter & Gamble, AT&T, Herman Miller, Hanover Insurance, Royal Dutch/Shell, and at other major corporations to the disciplines of the learning organization through the seminars offered by Innovation Associates.

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Fifth Discipline 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 37 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Fifth Discipline was a required reading for my Quality Control class. I was assigned to present the concepts to the class and apply them to the engineering field. I think this book is very difficult to read because there is a lot of information and the concepts are mixed of business and engineering concepts. Basically, this book is about how to run an organization. Senge addresses five disciplines that organizations and leaders should strive to master in creating learning organizations. The five disciplines are: . Personal mastery: similar to continuous improvement. It means continually clarifying our personal vision while striving to see reality objectively. . Mental models: becoming conscious of our individual and collective mindset or worldview. Good leaders learn to consider other perspectives through inquiry and reflection. . Building a shared vision: the practice of continually engaging people in articulating personal visions for the future and building a common sense of purpose and vision. . Team learning: learning skills of dialogue and discussion in order to generate collective learning and produce results that are greater than the contributions of individuals. . Systems thinking: changing the way we think in order to see the underlying structures of things, the relationships among players and forces, and the dynamic complexity of many problems we face. The essence of this discipline lies in a shift of mind: seeing interrelationships rather than linear cause-effect chains, and seeing processes of change rather than snapshots. Personally, I recommend everyone who is either in engineering or business major to read this book. It's a great book. Since this book is difficult to read because of the deep meaning of the concepts, it would be better if you put enough time to read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Peter Senge's book details in great length the problems that continue to plague many organizations. His outlines clear steps for solving these problems in a logical and systematic manner. In this book Senge outlines what he considers to be learning disabilities that contribute to the problems of many individuals and organizations. To overcome these disabilities he outlines five disciplines that when followed will provide continuous learning and improvement. He extensively covers the revolutionary ideas of his fifth discipline; systems thinking. Today more than ever there is a need to understand this form of thinking for both the individual and any organization that wishes to succeed in the modern global economy. I recommend this book for any student or employee who would like to make a positive contribution in their current or future workplace.
Lolzy More than 1 year ago
The Learning Organization remains one of the most talked-of management concepts in today's business world, and nobody is as capable of explaining exactly what is a Learning Organization or what are the requirements for such an elusive concept than Peter Senge. Senge's main thesis is that for an organization to become a Learning organization, it must embrace five disciplines: 1) Building Shared Vision so that the organization may build a common commitment to long term results and achievement. 2) Mental models are a technique that can be used to foster creativity as well as readiness and openness to change and the unexpected. 3) Team Learning is needed so that the learning is passed on from the individuals to teams (i.e. the organization as a whole). 4) Personal Mastery is the individual's motivation to learn and become better (hence the term Mastery). and Finally 5) The fifth discipline is that of Systems Thinking which allows to see a holistic systemic view of the organization as a function of its environment. However, this is not simply a book about management practice.. though it was written primarily for the use managers. This is a book about growth, improvement and continuous development. If you wish to achieve these results for yourself, your home, or your organization, then you MUST read this book. Senge introduces his ideas and concepts smoothly and in an absorbing style. He is able to explain difficult concepts simply and by the end, you find that you have whole-heartedly embraced his belief in the Learning Organization, in fact, you find yourself yearning for it!
Guest More than 1 year ago
It is pretty heavy book to read since the author tries to give a lot of information in the book, I think if you put time to read and understand the book, it will help you to think more clearly in the future, makes you more organized and be more capable. the author also include several examples in his book making it easier to understand his points.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Peter Senge has a wonderful talent as a founder and teacher of 'learning organization'. I know he has helped many through his deep understanding of the theories and practices on how to make an organization more effective. I know this book will open the minds of all who will read it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge was, though difficult to follow at times, an extremely insightful book that opens the door to a whole new way of managerial thinking. In the book, Peter Senge goes through many of the problems, or ‘learning disabilities’, that have effected organizations over the years and offers 5 disciplines to remedy these disabilities. The five disciplines include shared vision, mental models, personal mastery, team learning, and systems thinking; the fifth discipline, or systems thinking, being the most important, most overlooked, and is the center piece that the other four disciplines surround. Mr. Senge walks the reader through the disciplines with great examples and stories, and truly believes that organizations must continue to pursue improvement in these areas in order to be successful.  One thing that Peter Senge continued to preach throughout the book is the importance of being a ‘learning organization’. A learning organization is an organization where everyone buys into the idea of continuous improvement and innovation. Within this type of organization, the leaders are not as concerned about the hierarchy within the organization but the significance of improvement. Implementing these five disciplines within an atmosphere that encourages creativity, individualism, and innovation is the only way to attain this. By having the boss send a memo demanding for each employee to share their vision for the company is not going to suffice; as this approach will only produce a watered down vision that the employees think their bosses want to hear and not at all what they truly see. Peter Senge does a wonderful job of continually shaping this idea and helping to bring it to life off the page.  I personally recommend this book to not only managers but all people operating within an organization; as the system where you live, work, or attend can always be improved. 
PLupercio More than 1 year ago
This book was a lengthy but great read that explains the five disciplines that are critical to running a successful business. At the root of these disciplines is the employee, and  this book emphasis the importance for everyone involved to have that drive to succeed. To develop their personal mastery and feel invested in their work. This book inspired me to create a clear path to reach my vision of running my own business. The concepts in the book are very important to understand and implement in any managerial or team environment where success depends on the collaboration of everyone involved to solve key issues.   
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Like others, I worked on a team that had to read and present on this book for our Quality Control class. The book is long and a difficult read, yet it does a great job explaining the many errors that most people do not realize they do everyday. There are numerous examples and diagrams to gain a strong understanding of the material, and most of the info ties together to emphasis on each other. The book could be cut down into strong points with fewer examples to have a stronger impact on the reader. If there there was a revise or update, we recommend combining sections so the information had less transitions and flowed from one concept to the next. Overall, great book with a strong message of how to change mentalities of thinking for the better.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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RODRIGUEZD More than 1 year ago
Initially The Fifth Discipline may seem only as an engineering or leadership book for the management team of a company for the formation and development of the Learning Organization. None the less, it gradually becomes a very engaging read in which the interrelation of self and the organization reveals how the same system can be applied to one self and serve as introspection tool for growth. Although the book is repetitive at times, it serves to truly attain understanding of the points and more abstract ideas treated. The Learning Organization is described as the most efficient model for the functioning of a team and ultimately a company of continual improvement and thus its capacity to achieve goals. Senge guides its formation based on five principles or "disciplines" with the help of many vivid examples that make deep though and making the connection to a real organization dynamic and exciting. I found one of the most interesting quotes was "Structures of which we are unaware hold us prisoners", which envelops the general problem that without being aware of shortcomings, improvement and development cannot occur. This concept resonates throughout the book, where every chapter begins by identifying the fundamental problem which prevents discipline implementation . This concept is also the cornerstone of the Fifth Discipline-Systems Thinking, where the underlying fabric of interrelated factors is a juxtaposition of the factor which makes organizations fail when ignored or makes them true Learning organizations, both as result of their learning environment.. - Personal Mastery is the individual motivation created by "creative tension" or the moving force to reach a vision by purpose. It is essential to develop before systems thinking is achieved by surpassing archetypes of fundamental problems. -Mental Models is very similar to the concept of individual schema, and which has to be modified to attain shared vision (another Discipline) for everyone in the team from which it then can move forward. -Shared vision is explained as the concrete concept of a goal which is fueled by purpose to long term results and improvement. -Team Learning encompasses the various types of leaders and their capabilities in directing and "passing on" learning from individuals to the organization as a whole. As a result of Senge's passionate narration of how all these disciplines are interconnected, the book is an absorbing guide that encompasses every aspect of how to begin and achieve a Learning organization from the perspective of unit to the whole. It is truly a great book in as much for academic learning as for personal and social examination that leaves one believing in the Learning organization for its nominal and human value of common purpose.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was very hard to read. However, there was interesting information about the learning disabilities and how that can impact a company/organization. What I found to be most interesting was the importance of having a learning organization and systems thinking. Senge stated in order to be successful, people within an organization must learn how to learn together, and one must view the system as a whole. One person’s action will impact the entire system. Although such a simple concept, it is still plaguing many organizations. What helped with the reading was listening to the audio book also. The audio book contained many examples that cleared up much confusion from reading. I felt that the book had more information than needed. Senge could have reduced the number of pages and still have made all of his points.
VELGARA More than 1 year ago
The Fifth Discipline was assign in my Quality Class. What this book did for me, it gave me a good idea of how business are affected because they do not or are not able to implement the different strategies of being a leader and knowing how to run a business when one faces bigger problems than the ones we are used to seen everyday. There are some people out there that are very successful for example the Google Company or Facebook. These people are the type of people that are able to see their vision of where they want to be. As Senge explained, these men had a vision, but used the gap that existed between their vision and current reality to inspire their workers to achieve remarkable things. And they created self-reinforcing systems to do so. Another, thing that I really enjoy about this book is that, even though this book is really old it has examples that one can relate to and be able to understand them. The way it is written with different kind of examples help people understands the concept and the importance of the book. Sometimes when books are old the examples that are used usually need some updates but this book was really good it doesn’t feel like it needs any updating even though it is old it gets the point across. The fifth discipline has three primary steps that are really helpful to any organization and business. These steps should be learned by the managers and the bosses in order to have a successful business. First, we must think of organizations and their missions as complex systems rather than as collections of isolated problems. It is pitch for the development of a complete view. How everything interacts and what factors act upon what other factors. This book is a tool that can help pinpoint what should be done, or what needs to be done in an organization. It assist on how to break mental habits of looking only at the bottom line of sales revenues, for example, rather than the need to provide better service or delivery times. Second, employees must be permitted to make their own decisions locally, requiring honesty and openness throughout the organization as standard practice. This enables them to question and learn, not just individually but as part of a unified team. It helps managers to listen to workers and to implement their ideas into the business or organization. Mistakes are part of this process and should be allowed as valid experiments. Third, the task of a leader is to design an organizational system within which this can all be accomplished. Rather than control all decisions in a centralized manner in accordance with a rigid plan, the leader must develop a vision of where they organization should go and then allow his employees to pursue that vision as a team with great autonomy. It was a great experience in reading this book. It was the first business book that I have read but I am looking forward on reading more business books because they give you a good idea of what business are like and what are the problems that organizations are having and how they can be solved. I really recommend this book to everyone but specially to managers because they are the ones that will face most of the problems in the businesses or organizations.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a great look into ways that businesses can thrive.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Pete_the_ReaderNJ More than 1 year ago
It's complicated, but its depth is wide-reaching and comprehensive. Highly recommended.
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Anthony_Y More than 1 year ago
Peter Senge's Fifth Discipline contains the information and practices necessary for an organization to become a learning organization. That being said, the lessons in this book are of great help to anyone looking to improve the way they work within a group, how a group works, and even improve a large multinational corporation. The "five disciplines" are all strongly tied together and spelled out in plain language for many to read, understand, and benefit from. They are, however, quite complex to master. The book teaches people to alter or avoid actions that come naturally with being human. From defensive mechanisms that hinder cooperation, to small scale thinking that keeps people from focusing on an entire system, Senge has written a book that is a must read for anyone that cares and wants to improve upon the way that they or their company works, learns and strives for goals.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Fifth discipline written by Peter Senge overall is a very interesting book, it has great theories supported with examples which are critical to many different organizations and personal life. The methodologies proposed in the book can definitely help reinforce already existing belief or help highlight mistakes that are currently in existence. Whether someone agrees or disagrees with Senge's views, it is without a doubt a good read. The only negative aspect of this writing is that although he provides actual stories of businesses succeeding or failing as evidence for his points. Many times he fails to show that his theories are the actual reasons why the companies were able to succeed. One example of this would be the success of the Shell Corporation during the oil crisis. Although he was able to show that with proper mental models the company used was critical to their success, the Shell Corporation could have just as easily have had an improper forecast and failed. Then the example would have been detrimental to his theory instead. Perhaps if Senge were to include fewer examples and explain the examples further so that he can reinforce his points it may be more convincing. None the less the five disciplines mentioned in the book are useful. Some of the disciplines are focused on changing oneself instead of merely focusing on changing the organization. This way, although trying to change the organization may be long and strenuous to some being able to improve one's personal mastery can be a great accomplishment in the personal aspect. In addition to that being a part of a learning organization with a shared vision is better than one without these qualities. Although it is unsure the importance and effectiveness of the disciplines as heavy as Senge claims, it is certain that results will vary from organization to organization. Despite a few blemishes, the book is a useful read and can help add value to the reader being a part of any organization.
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